WASHINGTON -- Leaders of the AFL-CIO unanimously voted yesterday to hand Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton organized labor's endorsement for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, driving another nail in the campaign coffin of former Gov. Jerry Brown of California.
The move gives Mr. Clinton access to substantial labor resources without his having made any substantial public concessions to the union leadership, and signals an important step toward the coalescing of traditional Democratic blocs behind his candidacy.
The labor backing came in the form of a recommendation to the AFL-CIO's Executive Council from its Committee on Political Work, made up of 20 international union presidents with the most active political arms.
Ratification is considered a certainty at the next Executive Council meeting on May 5.
Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, called the decision "a reflection of the feeling across the breadth of labor that now is the time to act."
"With the recession continuing to batter American workers, trade union leaders have been given a clear and convincing signal from union members that they want a new administration in the White House," he said, adding that the leaders had voted on the basis of a thorough rank-and-file candidate review over recent months.
Asked how the AFL-CIO could endorse a candidate from a state that had a right-to-work law, Mr. Kirkland sidestepped, saying that Mr. Clinton has a much better labor record than Mr. Bush, who he said has a "do-nothing" attitude toward the plight of hard-pressed workers.
The immediate impact of the decision, AFL-CIO spokesman Rex Hardesty said, was to free up state AFL-CIO organizations, including the one in Pennsylvania where the next Democratic primary is to be held on April 28, to work in Mr. Clinton's behalf. After having defeated Mr. Brown in the New York primary a week ago, Mr. Clinton was heavily favored to repeat in Pennsylvania even before this action by the labor leaders.
Mr. Kirkland said the union leaders had decided to act now because if the endorsement "were to be made, it were best that it be made as quickly as possible, and not drag out so that whoever emerges as a candidate would have maximum opportunity to prepare himself both for the convention and for the campaign."
The AFL-CIO president denied that the step was being taken to get rid of Mr. Brown, but he said it was clear that of the two remaining active Democratic candidates, only Mr. Clinton was in a position to achieve a delegate majority.
Mr. Kirkland praised Mr. Clinton as a candidate who has "run a tougher gauntlet, tougher than any candidate within my memory up to this point, and he's stood up extraordinarily well under it."
At the same time, Mr. Kirkland spoke nostalgically of the old system of party leaders making the choice of a nominee rather than putting candidates through primaries.
"The first question that used to be asked," he said, "was 'Can he stand a frisk'?" -- an examination of his background. But now, he said with obvious chagrin, members of the news media "do the frisking, and you do it with great gusto and wild abandon."